Strike action needed now
Eamonn Rothwell, the Managing Director of Irish Ferries, who is trying to sack 543 workers and replace them with migrant workers from Eastern Europe, earned €687,000 last year. In fact he got a pay rise of €35,000 in 2004. That is approximately €20,000 more than what he intends to pay his "galley slaves" for a whole year. One last statistic – this man who claims that his company needs to replace unionised labour with migrants on slave wages in order to stay competitive earned more than 45 times the wages he proposes to give one of his new workers!
Neither the government nor IBEC are complaining about his wages. No, once again it is the "lower orders" (as one commentator called them) that are being made to suffer for the profits of big business.
Bertie Ahern feigned interest in the plight of the Irish Ferries workers when he declared that the company was engaged in sharp practice. The truth is that Bertie Ahern and his PD coalition partners support what Irish Ferries are doing. This government have consciously encouraged migrant workers to come to Ireland not just because there is a labour shortage but also so that big business can exploit and use them to drive down the wages of all workers. Tom Parlon the Minister of State at the Department of Finance said that the prospective new employees of Irish Ferries would be better off than they would be in their own country because they would be getting €3.50 an hour and board and lodging!
In the Dail Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD, challenged Bertie Ahern on the issue: "The conditions sought by Irish Ferries for their new workers can only be described as semi-bonded labour. They will slave for 84 hours per week, work for months on end with no break and eat and sleep in their workplace – the ship – for €3.50 per hour. That is a mere €3.50 more than the galley slaves of ancient Rome except, I am sure, if we were around in those days, the galley bosses would have saved us guff about obeying workers’ rights.
"Why are ships flying banana boat flags of convenience allowed to ply EU waters with impunity after all the Taoiseach’s talk of social charters, workers’ rights and the rest of it during, for example, recent referenda? Is the answer that the policy of European big business, supported by governments like the Taoiseach’s, is that migrant labour is there to be abused as is happening in front of the Taoiseach’s eyes in the construction industry, the meat industry and in many other industries in order to maximise profit?"
SIPTU cannot solve this crisis with trips to the High Court for temporary injunctions, nor by empty appeals to the government. A strike to shut down Irish Ferries must be called immediately. Irish Ferries will be defeated if the leadership of the union SIPTU makes it clear that they will mobilise trade unionists in the ports of Ireland, Britain and France to refuse to handle its ships. SIPTU has the power to shut the Irish Ferries operation down until they agree to employ all of their staff on current trade union rates of pay and conditions.
If the SIPTU leaders refuse to fight and allow Irish Ferries to succeed it will rank as one of the most despicable betrayals of the working class in the history of the Irish trade union movement.
Article from the October 2005 issue of the ‘Socialist’, newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI